Updated: March 2, 2016 12:03:24 am
Last Thursday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Parliament that hate speech does not constitute free speech. He made the observation while defending the human resource development ministry’s role in the Rohith Vemula case and the JNU arrests. Three days later, the minister of state for HRD, Ram Shankar Katheria, was present at a VHP meeting called to condole the murder of one of its activists in Agra, where speaker after speaker urged Hindus to “corner Muslims and destroy the demons”. The minister said his official position would not stop him from taking to the streets for the purpose. Katheria has since clarified that he did not name any community in his speech, and the party seems satisfied with his explanation.
Unlike Jaitley, this newspaper believes that the right to free speech includes even hate speech as long as it is not an incitement to violence. But the Agra meet was a call to arms. Speakers threatened to turn Agra into a Muzaffarnagar, recalling the anti-Muslim riots in the town in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. The tone and tenor of the speeches were ominous. The BJP may argue that the VHP is an autonomous organisation that does not take orders from the party; it can’t be held responsible for the actions of fringe sections of the Sangh Parivar. But in this case, several BJP legislators attended the meet and a Central minister endorsed the call to aggression; BJP MP from Fatehpur Sikri, Babulal, called for an open fight with Muslims. The VHP now threatens to hold similar condolence meetings in every village in the Braj region. Local BJP leaders have endorsed the move, which is likely to polarise people along communal lines. With UP set for assembly elections next year, the tactic is obvious. In fact, the local MLA said in as many words that Hindus needed to show their strength — with rifles and knives — as the assembly election approaches. A polarising agenda may yield votes in the short run, but it can rupture the social fabric for a long time. The BJP brass must restrain its leaders from backing the VHP agenda, which can have disastrous consequences for UP’s composite society.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav bet on new investment to revive the economy. No policy intervention can attract investment in the absence of social peace. And, voters tend to penalise governments that fail to facilitate growth.
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